Summary of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is written by Thomas Gray.

Summary

The poem begins by describing the approach of the evening with its darkness and its silence, which is unbroken except for some such sounds, like those of the droning of the beetle, the tinkling of sheep’s bells and the hooting of the owl. This darkness is conducive to mournful thoughts. Then it proceeds to speak of the poor people – the ancestors of the rustic population of the neighbourhood who lay deep buried under the elm and the yew in the country churchyard. Nothing can wake them from their everlasting sleep. They can no longer enjoy the family gathering around the fireplace when they returned home after the day’s work. These poor villagers did the humble work of cultivation.

The poet, then, requests the big and the great not to despise these poor peasants for their humble but useful work. He also requests them not to blame the poor peasants for their having no monuments erected over their graves inside the church, because, according to Gray, the poet, monuments of all kinds, tombstones with inscriptions, statues, honours, tributes are helpless to recall the dead back to life. Speaking of these peasants, the poet says, that some of these poor peasants could have been great rulers or statesmen, famous musicians or poets if they had not been ignorant and poor. Yet cases of potential greatness are common enough, for beautiful pearls lie at the bottom unseen in the wilderness. This country churchyard may contain the grave of one who could become a popular hero like Hampden or an immortal poet like Milton or a military genius like Cromwell, but their humble lot denied them a chance of becoming great orators or great martyrs or great benefactors of their country. But, then, their humble lot, while preventing the development of their virtues, limited the nature and extent of their vices as well, so that they were saved from becoming bloody usurpers or merciless tyrants.

It saved them likewise from showing a callous disregard of truth and honesty and from becoming mean flatterers of the great. These gravestones of the poor show that their desire to be remembered after death is a desire common to all men. After Gray’s death to some people will talk of him, some may be curious even to visit his grave and to read the epitaph on his tomb.

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